By Chris Mosser
(LSM July/Aug 2011/vol. 4 – Issue 4)
Among the biggies in current Texas music, Kevin Fowler stands as a singular success story. His background as a former hair-metal gunslinger is well known, but the more important phase of his early career was the long-running weekly residency at a burger joint called Babe’s on Austin’s Sixth Street in the mid-90s, during which his band would execute a grueling four-hour set in the attempt to hang on to a fickle crowd of bar-hoppers. It was a musical boot camp that honed Fowler and his band into a machine, and he still draws on that experience at his shows today, playing to much, much bigger crowds that seem to hang on his every word. Now in his mid-40s, Fowler’s old-school enough to have once counted Austin country fixtures Dale Watson, the Derailers and the late Don Walser amongst his contemporaries, but the fact that he now headlines festivals alongside such next-generation Texas country favorites as Randy Rogers, Casey Donahew and Josh Abbott is no mystery. His ability to connect with fans of all ages and unite the self-proclaimed “White Trash Nation” surpasses any currently-serving politician by a mile. Onstage, Fowler is an aw-shucks drinking buddy who wants nothing but for his audience to shed their 9-to-5 cares and embrace and celebrate their common, say, lack of culture. His shows are undeniably fun, at least for all but those who are steadfastly determined not to have any. But even fans of more so-called “serious” music who find themselves in front of Fowler’s stage will have trouble arguing against the sticky melodies and easy humor of his songs or his crack band’s flawless execution.
Fowler’s music has become a permanent pillar for Texas music radio, and probably would have crossed into mainstream success by now if not for the unpredictable hazards of the Nashville record industry, a system now in crisis. The collapse of his last label deal — or more specifically, the folding of his last Nashville label, the Disney imprint Lyric Street Records — threw Fowler’s momentum off a bit, at least in terms of releasing a quicker follow-up to his last studio album, 2007’s Bring It On. Fortunately for both Fowler and and his fans, though, he’s now found a new home on the independent label Average Joe’s Entertainment, which will release his new album, Chippin’ Away, on Aug. 2.
A batch of brand new Fowler tunes (as opposed to last fall’s Best Of … So Far) has been a longtime coming, and it goes without saying that everyone involved in his career has high hopes pinned on it. But Fowler’s had more on his mind of late than just getting a new record out; he’s currently going through a divorce from his wife, Gillian, with whom he’s raising three daughters. Through it all, though, Fowler seems to have to have maintained an optimistic outlook on his life and career. I’ve had the opportunity to see him a lot this summer, as he’s become a welcome backstage regular at KVET’s weekly Free Texas Music Series ever since its move to the Nutty Brown Cafe, which isn’t far from his Dripping Springs-area home. I stopped in at his place one recent Sunday to catch up some more. While my 7-year-old son made good use of his pool, Fowler and I sat on his back porch and talked about the crossroads he’s arrived at both professionally and personally. The man grills up a mean steak.
How long’s it been since Bring It On?
It’s been over three years, and it’s been a frustrating path between then and now, you know, because it seems every time we get with a record label, they tend to go out of business.
Give me some background on that.
It started all the way back 10 years ago with Southwest Wholesale. The whole scene was driven through there, and they went out of business, so I killed one label there. So then, we ended up on Equity Records, Clint Black’s thing, and did two records there, and they ended up going out of business. And then we finally went to Lyric Street — and we went there specifically because it was owned by Disney and it was going to be a very stable company.
That was a big deal.
It was a big deal for us. They were a huge company and they had the best radio staff … if things had landed different we’d be having a totally different conversation today. Rascal Flatts leaving the label was kind of the last straw, and Disney just shut it down. At the time “Pound Sign” was going right up the national chart, it was up to No. 32 and gaining at least a spot every week — we were gonna have a Top 10 record. But, what do you do? When they shut the label down the single went away.
So that was a direct cause-and-effect thing?
Oh yeah. All the stations pulled it when they heard the label was closing.
That’s bizarre to me that it works that way.
It’s weird how that works, but that’s how it works with these reporting stations. So, it’s been bad record deal after bad record deal for the last 10 years.
The Lyric Street thing was about a year ago now.
Yeah. So, it’s frustrating because I’ve had this new record done for a year this month. It was supposed to come out last October, but the label shut down last June. So, it’s taken time to negotiate with the attorneys to get the record back, and find a new record deal. It’s like getting a divorce and then getting remarried. It’s taken a year of my life, and it’s really been hard on us not having a new record out for three years.
You’ve kept cranking out singles, though.
We’ve still been making things available to radio and for download, but we’ve not had the momentum of having a full record out there.
I think I’ve seen you play three or maybe four shows during that interim time, and it’s all been real strong crowds and everybody has seemed as enthused as they ever did to me. Do you feel like this whole thing has hurt you regionally as much as it has nationally? Doesn’t seem like it to me.
It’s just slowed our growth, you know? We’ve been able to keep our fanbase up, but definitely it’s been hard on us to keep the excitement up about the band. We’d rather be putting something new out at least every 14 months. It’s been just a mess. So, that’s the reason we’ve ended up with Average Joe’s. This time around I wanted a label that actually got regional music. They have Colt Ford and Cory Smith and some bigger guys — they just signed Montgomery Gentry. They really get the grassroots thing, and all of their artists are making money. They aren’t out there dumping millions of dollars on radio or losing money on new upstart acts. Everybody there carries their own weight. I wanted to be with a label that was self-supported and made money, and that we wouldn’t have to worry about shutting down. You know, they aren’t the huge Nashville label but that’s fine with me. They have a good staff and can do good business. All of their acts do well, and they know how to get out and touch people — it’s not all about radio and TV anymore, it’s about getting online, with Twitter and Facebook, and giving the fans content all the time. It’s more of a one-on-one thing. It’s not like it was 10 years ago when it was all about radio hits. It’s exciting for me right now, the way that new stuff is coming out and how new music is being discovered by people. The old model is gone, shot out of the water. I mean, they’ll still break a few big stars, but the Internet has caused the rise of regional music. There would be no Texas music scene as we know it right now without the Internet. We’d have never had the access to the fans. Back in the ’90s when I was playing with rock bands, our only tool was to go to Kinko’s and make flyers, and flyer cars and send out postcards in the mail with our dates on them. This is only 12, 13 years ago that all you could do is send out a monthly mailer in the mail! We forget how new the Internet still is, and the effect that it has. It’s changed the whole playing field of the music industry.
So with the arrangement with the new label, will you and your immediate team still continue to be hands-on with all that stuff? How much of the social networking workload is the label taking on moving forward? Are you still functionally independent?
We’re still functioning the same way we always have; they are mainly doing the marketing and radio — they have a great radio staff over there — and the distribution. That’s the key, keeping it in stores. A lot of country fans aren’t really into the downloading stuff, they still want a hard physical product.
That’s kinda how I am.
I’m the same way. I’ve got my iPod and my iPhone, everything to play mp3s, but I’ve also got the new Jarrod Birmingham record on a CD in my truck. When I wanna listen to it I’ll pull it out and throw it in.
I like to have the sleeve and the art and all that stuff.
I like to look through it and see who wrote the songs and all that — I’m old school, too. So the distribution is important and this new label does a great job with that. Their artists are all doing great numbers. They understand the grassroots creation of fanbases.
A lack of that understanding seems to be what has really been the undoing of a lot of the labels that have gone by the wayside. Perhaps they were too slow to adapt. Do you think that’s true?
With the mainstream record labels, you’re still going to break a few Lady Antebellums and you’re gonna have a few things that will break through and be huge, but I think the trend from here on is going to be regional, underground artists that might sell one- or two-hundred thousand records, and have a great touring base. They’ll stay on the road and take care of and nurture their fanbase. Cultivate it. I think that’s gonna be the future of it, that’s the way it’s going. A lot of people have kind of tuned out of the mainstream thing. Fifteen years ago, you had your gatekeepers, which were the big labels and radio, and they were the only access to the fans. Now, with the Internet, people can find anything they want to. If you’re a true music fan …
An active fan.
Yeah. You know, like the guy who used to buy albums and 8-tracks back in the ’70s. If you’re a true music fan, an active rather than a passive fan, somebody who just buys one or two records a year and might go to a Reba show — that’s not a real music fan to me, that’s a passive fan. If you’re a true music fan, you’re finding your music now through the Internet and through friends and word of mouth and buzz. No matter what your music fetish is, there’s a website for it and a chatroom for it and a total online infrastructure for it. I’m not trashing radio here, I’m just saying that’s the truth. Active music fans are finding their stuff now in other ways.
It makes the job harder for radio I think. We’ve just moved into this new “PPM” ratings system that tends to reward more conservative, familiar programming, because frankly that’s what the mass wants to hear, but the mass is not the people we’re talking about, these active music fans. Which is where a show like the KVET Roadhouse comes in: the attempt to keep radio interesting for the active music fan and show the passive fan what great stuff there is out there, and maybe convert some of ’em.
The kids, they don’t go to radio unless it’s something like your show on KVET, where they know they’ll find something new.
It seems like in Texas music you’ve got several different paths of influence. There’s your more Americana, Townes Van Zandt/Robert Earl Keen thing, and then there’s the guys doing the more rock- or pop-influenced stuff like your Josh Abbotts and Casey Donahews, shooting for the younger kids. But your thing seems to me pretty unique amongst all of that, and it also doesn’t seem like there’s much of anyone trying to emulate your style.
Probably because they’re smarter than me. (Laughs)
I think it’s more that it would be really difficult to out-Kevin Fowler Kevin Fowler.
Well, the key to the scene is that there is no “sound.” There’s so many different things going on, from Aaron Watson and Kyle Park doing the straight country thing, and all these guys like Reckless doing more a rock thing, and then in the middle the singer-songwriter Guy Clark camp. Anything goes, as long as it’s good. The same people are listening to all of this, plus Micky and the Motorcars and Randy Rogers and on and on.
Your particular strain is more just about having fun. I don’t think anybody wants you to come out with a real serious record.
That’s not what I do. There’s enough U2s out there trying to save the world.
Your stuff is about an escape.
I’m not a preacher or trying to sell anything. I just want people to come to the shows, and forget about all the worries in their lives for an hour and a half, get ’em participating — that, my friend, is a successful show. Get ’em engaged. Our stage show is different from anybody else’s in the scene, because I come from the mindset that, if you just wanna listen to the record, you can do that at home. If someone’s gonna come to the show, we’re gonna give them a show. Maybe that comes from my old rock ’n’ roll days.
What I know about your rock background is, with Dangerous Toys and Thunderfoot, that’s boogie rock and wasn’t really “serious” music, either.
When I saw my first Chris LeDoux show, I thought, “This guy gets it.” That was when I decided how I wanted to do it. The show was country, but it was high energy and the crowd was smiling and having fun.
Was LeDoux the guy who turned you more toward country from rock?
No, when I started writing a lot, I was already listening to Dwight and Merle, and had also gotten into Lefty Frizzell. Lefty was the original pop country writer to me — “You Got the Money Honey” and all that, really catchy. He really caught me right off the bat. So I started playing country, and all the hat acts were out then, and I’d go to a show and think, “Man, this is really boring!” I always wanted my show to be a lot more exciting and fun. It’s my ADD I guess. I need a show that will keep me engaged.
Your show definitely does. There’s never a dull moment at a Fowler show.
It’s not for everybody. I don’t think any show can be. You just do what you do, and I’m not going to worry that somebody doesn’t like it or doesn’t take it seriously because I have moving lights or jumpboxes or whatever. You can’t worry about pissing somebody off. If you’re not pissing somebody off, you’re way too safe.
I agree with that 100 percent.
If your show and your music are that neutral, you’re not moving anybody. You’ve gotta have passion in there, whether they love you or hate you. If your stuff is too crystal-clean … that’s the problem with country now, it’s so sterile that a lot of people have just disconnected from it.
Something I’ve noticed with a lot of live shows in the Texas genre is, for a lot of these people it’s as much about the gathering as it is about the show or the band. There’s a lot of visiting and scamming and drinking, often more so than direct enthusiasm about the band. But at your shows, for whatever reason, the crowds really seem focused on what you’re playing.
Well, everybody’s doing their own thing. Me and Pat went hunting together recently and we’re sitting around the campfire talking about how we’re the old guys in the scene now. In fact when this thing started there wasn’t even really a scene, it was just me and Cory and Pat and Roger Creager and Dub Miller and Doug Moreland — just a bunch of guys who happened to be playing the same venues.
Who were the old guys to you then?
I always called ’em the “three name guys”: Jerry Jeff Walker, Gary P. Nunn…
Robert Earl Keen.
(Laughs) Ray Wylie Hubbard, Billy Joe Shaver. I used to call up Ray Benson and bug him: “Hey man, what should I do, this or that?” Now, the young kids are calling me asking me questions, so now, we’re the old guys, with these kids nippin’ at our heels. We were young and hungry and wanted to take over, and that’s how it is now. The cool thing is now, with guys like Kyle Park and Casey Donahew and Josh Abbott and the young guys who are doing well, they’re keeping up the traditions and pulling in new, young fans, keeping the younger crowd. As long as we keep the young kids involved and engaged with Texas music, that’s the key. It’s not about competition or knocking somebody off a pedestal. It’s really cool seeing how this scene has flourished. When we started there wasn’t even a sound company specializing in these shows, nothing. Now there’s the Texas Music Chart, there’s shows like yours and radio stations all over supporting the music, Texas music magazines, blogs, venues … now, if you’re a Texas artist with something to offer, you can plug right in and go. One thing I’m very proud of is to be one of the guys that got this all moving, though it wasn’t by any design, it just happened, the timing was right and it just all fell into line. So I feel lucky to be part of it and proud to have built some of that. It’s a cool thing we have out here and if the young kids keep coming in, it could go another 50 years.
On that same topic, do you think that being a part of a regional scene like this is limiting to an artist’s career? Do you feel as though there’s a line that you could cross in your growth that could result in bad feelings amongst the Texas purists? Pat’s the obvious example that I’ll trot out there, of an artist who kind of “graduated” from the Texas scene and got …
A little backlash.
There are definitely people out there who feel like he kind of sold out. How do you avoid that as you grow up toward the limits of a regional scene?
That’s always been a problem in music. When I was young I liked to find underground bands who were my little secret. I was into the Cars before anybody knew who they were, and when they blew up with all the big MTV hits and stuff, and kind of changed their sound, I lost interest. You gotta be really careful not to change what you do, just do what you do.
Do you think that’s what it is? The actual content of the music?
Just gotta be true to yourself. My sound has slowly changed since Beer Bait & Ammo, to this new record, where things are a little more rockin’ and the songs are a little more refined and better written. You always want to grow as an artist but you run the risk of old fans yelling “sellout.” Look at Willie’s stuff, his music has continually changed over the years. You don’t want to keep cranking out the same record over and over. This new record, we’ve really made leaps and bounds.
Is this something you actively consider during the songwriting process?
It’s more in the song selection process. This record, I had to take the blinders off and just say, a good song is a good song, and let’s put it on there. There’s a song on there called “That Girl” that is a straight-up radio candy, pop country song, and we were kind of on the line about it, wondering if it was too far a stretch from Beer Bait & Ammo. Then again, I don’t wanna keep writing Beer Bait & Ammo over and over again, because at that point as an artist you’re just stuck. If you listen to George Strait’s early records, they were really super country, and his stuff now is really polished, but he’s managed to keep his sound.
It seems like both Strait and Willie, while their sounds have evolved and refined, they’ve always managed to stay true to who they originally were, and I’d say you’ve done that, too.
All you do is just reject all outside influence, and that’s what we did on this record. I just wrote and recorded the best 12 songs that I could write and/or find. If I had something that was really country, but it wasn’t as strong as this song over here that was more mainstreamy, I just went with the best song. It’s still Fowler, like songs like “Hell Yeah I Like Beer.”
That’s about as Fowler as it gets.
That could have been on the very first record and not turned anybody’s head. Ray Benson told me in 2002, when I was working on my first record deal, “Just do what you do, and don’t let anybody change it, unless you want to make the change.” Follow your heart, write the songs that you enjoy and hopefully other people will enjoy them, too. The worst thing you can do is put songs on your record that you don’t like, but you think the radio will play ’em, and that’s the downfall of a lot of artists. You better love ‘em, because you might be playing them a long time.
Shifting over to some personal stuff, about four months ago, you told me that you and Gillian were getting a divorce. Since then, the main way I have kept up with you has been through Facebook updates, and I noticed right off that you were posting about your daughters more often, but I also noticed more posts where you were obviously happy about hanging out with your friends and kind of doing single guy stuff. It occurred to me that you were kind of trying to find your way forward. Is that accurate at all?
Yeah. Since splitting up, it’s hard — now I have to try to figure out how to juggle kids and career and everything, and it’s crazy being a single dad, you know? Now when I’m with the girls, it’s one on one, nonstop. It’s really wild just trying to juggle everything: Being gone so much as a career, and then when you’re home you want to spend as much time with them as you can because you just missed five or 10 days or however long you’re gone. So it’s really made me, when I’m with the girls, try to stay with 100-percent focused attention on them, and have quality time with them. When they were here all the time, I just took it for granted. Now I try to make every minute count … spend quality time, do fun stuff, enjoy them.
It seems natural to assume that the demands of being a traveling musician — you’re out of the house a lot and gone long stretches of time — would be a difficult thing to deal with in the context of a marriage. Did that play into how things went wrong?
Oh yeah. I think that’s why you see so many divorced musicians. It’s hard enough just being married, period, but then you throw in all the things that go with a successful career, you know, if you’re going to operate at a high level. You’ve gotta be gone 200 days a year — truck drivers don’t even spend that much time on the road. It’s really hard. Then even when you’re off the road, you’ve gotta be writing songs, and there’s never a day off. It really wears and tears on any marriage. Being a musician, it’s kind of selfish as it is. So, if you’re gonna do well at it you have to roll your whole life into it, you gotta just work non stop. It’s really sad to see how many marriages it does kill.
Since you guys have decided you were going to split up, how have you been? Tell me about the progression of how you’ve felt about it. Has it made you regret anything about the choices you’ve made in terms of your career and personal life?
I think you always have regrets, you know? What could I have done differently, how did I screw this part up? My answer’s always just, “write a song about it.” So I think I’m at the songwriting stage of it now, where you kind of look back at it and say, “Wow, I screwed up some things there, and did some things right.” For me writing songs is a good way to communicate things, like “Best Mistake I Ever Made,” where I was talking to Bobby Pounds, the guy I wrote it with, about how I felt about my girls. First I thought we had screwed up, you know, getting someone pregnant and then getting married and the whole nine yards, and then you look back and in hindsight you say, “That was the best damn thing I ever did.” A lot of times, that’s where my best songs come from: real life experience that blindsided me. It might seem weird but it’s sometimes therapeutic to write it down, you know, all your feelings about it.
Most definitely, I can see that.
Just last week I was out at Josh Abbott’s annual songwriter retreat along with Casey Donahew, Aaron Watson, Larry Joe Taylor, about 20 songwriters, and I was writing with some guys and came up with one about what I’m going through right now, and the title’s “I’m Just Trying to Figure It Out.” Just a song about stumbling through life, you don’t know where you’re going, you’re just figuring it out as you go. I think a lot of people look at musicians, and don’t realize that their lives are as screwed up or even more screwed up than theirs are. Usually more screwed up because they live such a non-typical life, you know? So much goes on with it that people don’t see. You might think a musician just works that 4 or 6 hours per week that they’re onstage, but there’s so much more that goes into it, and it can really take a toll on your life.
Has there been a heightened sense of freedom that’s come along with it?
Yeah, maybe. I think anybody who’s single will say well, it’s Wednesday night, I can sit here at home alone or I can go to Nutty Brown for the KVET Texas Music Series. (Laughs) So now I hope I’m not wearing out everybody in Travis County being out all the time.
So, let’s sum it up. With the changes that you’ve had in your personal life, and the new record coming out, what do you want to be doing, where do you want to be, say a year from now? What’s your hope for the immediate future?
I’d love to just keep on playing music as long as I can. I just played some shows with Willie the other day, and he’s what, 78? He’s still loving what he’s doing. I just want to keep doing what I love and loving what I do. Every year that I can make a living as a musician and not have to get a real job, that was a good year for me. I’d like to see the Texas music scene keep growing, and be a part of it, and just keep moving down the road. I don’t foresee that 10 years from now I’ll want to be on the road all the time, maybe even five years from now, you know? I would like to slow down, but I don’t think it will ever be in me to stop. I think you either have that burn for it, or else you don’t. I don’t ever want to stop playing live, but I would like to not be on the road so much. But not yet, I’ve still got some road dog left in me.
How about personally?
I’m optimistic about the next couple of years. Change isn’t always bad, and I’m curious about where this ride will take me. The older I get the more I see that I’m not always in control of the ride.
Along that tip, you’re a daddy of three daughters, one of whom is getting up into boyfriend-kinda range, so there’s another ride you’re in for right there.
Well, I’d like to tell all the boys out there that I own a lot of guns.